“The central values of civilization are in danger”

The Mont Pelerin Society was founded 75 years ago. The title of this post was the opening sentence of the Statement of Aims the new Society agreed upon. They had many concerns about what they considered “central values,” but primary among those concerns were the dangers related to market economies: “a decline of belief in private property and the competitive market” and “the growth of theories which question the desirability of the rule of law.”

How has the world done since 1947? It’s easy to point to the decline of communism and socialism, both in practice and as a dominant theory, as a victory for the goals of the Mont Pelerin Society. However, we might be concerned that in the non-communist world, economic freedom has declined even as communism has failed. Let’s dig a little deeper.

One source we can use is an extension of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index. The primary index only extends back to 1970, but recently Lawson and Murphy have constructed a version of the index which goes all the way back to 1950 for some countries. As far as I’m aware, they haven’t yet perfectly mapped the pre-1970 index with the primary index that extends to the present, but I’ll make a quick comparison using the available data. The 1950 data brings us very close to the date of the first MPS meeting.

Here’s a list of countries relevant to the discussion at MPS in 1947. The list includes countries where attendees came from, as well as other countries of interest to the discussion, such as China and Russia (I’m using the list from Caldwell’s recent edited transcripts of the 1947 meeting). Caveat: this isn’t a chain-linked index, so the 1950 and 2020 numbers are perfectly comparable. Also, the 2020 number only includes Areas 1-4 of the index, since that’s what the pre-1970 data contains.

The table above should give us some optimism about the state of market economies in the world from the perspective of 1947. Not only have China and Russia, clearly improved their economic freedom scores, but all of the Western market economies have as well. Again, exercise caution in interpreting these, since it’s not a chain-linked index, and it excludes one area of economic freedom (regulation, which surely has grown substantially since 1947). Despite those cautions, the picture in 2020 looks pretty good compared with 1950.

But what of other liberal institutions? While the MPS statement of aims doesn’t specifically mention democratic institutions, the threat to democracy seems to clearly be a concern in 1947 (“extensions of arbitrary power” and “freedom of thought and expression”).

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